Sen. Joni Ernst floats QAnon conspiracy theory about inflated COVID death count: "So skeptical"

Joni Ernst's state of Iowa has seen an explosion of COVID cases, but she suggests maybe the numbers aren't real

Published September 3, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told a crowd Monday that she was "so skeptical" about the death count of coronavirus victims in the U.S., echoing a false conspiracy theory pushed by adherents of the sprawling, baseless QAnon conspiracy theory movement.

An attendee told Ernst during the Q&A portion of her campaign stop in Waterloo, Iowa, that he believed coronavirus cases and deaths have been overcounted — a proposition repeatedly debunked by medical professionals who say the true death count is, if anything, likely to be much higher than official numbers available today.

More than 185,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Wednesday evening, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus database.

Ernst, however, implied that she agreed with the man, saying that she too was "so skeptical" of those numbers.

"These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they're doing?" Ernst asked the crowd.

Doctors and coroners determine official cause of death.

Asked to clarify her remarks, Ernst said after the Waterloo event that this financial arrangement was "what I've heard" from health care providers, but added that she wasn't sure whether that meant death numbers were actually being inflated.

"They do get reimbursed higher amounts if it's a COVID-related illness or death," the Republican told a reporter with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Asked about the death count theory, Ernst explained, "I heard the same thing on the news, you know, traveling across the state today, that they're thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19."

"Now, no doubt that there are deaths and it complicates with those that have other illnesses, certainly, but those are just attributable to COVID-19, I'm just really curious. It would be interesting to know that," she said.

Critics blasted Ernst, whose state was alerted this week by the White House coronavirus task force that it had the highest infection numbers in the nation.

Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, called Ernst's remarks "JAW DROPPING" in a series of tweets.

"Senator Ernst is from Iowa, where currently is having one of the WORST #COVID19 OUTBREAKS hotspot in the entire nation as a region, and some say maybe the world," Feigl-Ding said. "To deny that is to deny the suffering of Iowans."

Theresa Greenfield, Ernst's Democratic opponent in the upcoming November election, which looks to be a tight contest, called the comments "appalling."

"It's appalling for you to say you're 'so skeptical' of the toll this pandemic has on our families and communities across Iowa," Greenfield tweeted. "We need leaders who will take this seriously."

While it's true that Medicaid adds 20% in payments for care for coronavirus patients, that money is meant to cover the additional costs incurred by the challenges of treating a new virus.

The false number of 10,000 reflects a viral QAnon meme that misrepresents a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which said that COVID was the only factor in 6% of reported U.S. deaths from the coronavirus. The theory concludes incorrectly that this means only 6% of those reported deaths should count.

Victims with at least one other contributing factor, such as pneumonia — often brought about by the virus — are still part of the total number of deaths.

On Monday President Trump retweeted a tweet pushing the theory from QAnon follower named "Mel Q." Twitter removed the tweet for violating its rules against spreading misinformation about the pandemic.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

MORE FROM Roger Sollenberger

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Brief Conspiracy Theories Coronavirus Covid-19 Donald Trump Iowa Joni Ernst Pandemic Qanon